writing my way in
Recently I was asked to visit a senior English class at the school where I teach World Religions. I was excited to be entering into conversation with students not just as their familiar teacher but as a ‘real poet.’ But as I was telling students about the writing life, when I was singing the usual song about how hard it is to write, and how I have to drag myself to do it sometimes, a student I knew quite well looked at me half in annoyance and half in genuine curiosity. He asked, “Then why do you do it?”
My brain sputtered. No one had asked me that, that directly, in a long time. I could have gotten dramatic and said because I have no other choice! It must come from my soul or surely I will perish! Instead I said something like the quote that’s often attributed to E.M. Forester: how can I know what I think until I see what I say?
For me, this is especially true when it comes to theology and my own understanding of faith. I grew up in a household of serious Episcopalians who saw the Bible in all of its holy, historical, conflicting, challenging beauty, and treated it as such. My father was a former English professor turned parish priest, and applied his analytical reading to preaching the Bible, a style that that was loved by his New York City parish full of overeducated seekers.
Every Sunday I sat in the third pew of the church and listened over and over to the lectionary, the Biblical stories I’d been hearing since the womb. Even though they were the stories that I used to make sense of the world, the details were always strange. How could I, a teenager in Manhattan in the nineties, make sense of a God incarnate in a first-century Palestinian rebel?
So I rewrote him. I don’t mean to say I rewrote the Bible itself, but I rewrote the stories.
I did what Jewish scholars call midrash, entering into conversation with the text as though with an honored teacher, trusting it to reveal its details, sometimes through metaphor and invention. Seeing into the story and seeing it differently, a reverently sideways kind of interpretation.
I began with Jesus’s miracle stories. These were problematic in the secular world I existed in, and I knew better than to try to explain them with science, or as a cheap slight of hand I’d once (ill-advisedly) practiced in a Sunday school classroom to teach the story of water into wine. I didn’t dare enter into the mind of Christ, but I did put myself in the position of those being healed, of those asking for help. I could understand that. I built my own versions of the miracle stories, and in the process, asked the questions not only of God, but alongside of the thousands of years of commentary that had gone on before me.
My own poetic work (for an example, see my poem below, “Curing the Blind Man,” which appears in a book about scripture called Sensing God) is a voice in the stream of the conversation, and I humbly subscribe to the idea that my voice is as welcome in the choir as anyone else’s. By loving the text and holding it to account, both celebrating it and asking it to answer for itself as I would a dear friend, I build a relationship with the Spirit that I transcribe in the poems. As much as we think religion is about belief, the verb we use to talk about religion is practice. Faith must be paired with a verb to mean anything. I choose the verb, ‘to write.’
CURING THE BLIND MAN
It was a long walk out of the village. So he asked
Jesus, whose hand in his was sweaty, what things looked
like (would he know sight when it came?) and Jesus
told him that wheel tracks creased the road, that the sky
stretched, washed out, that his sandals striped his feet in the sun.
And when Jesus had put saliva on his eyes and laid
his hands on them, he asked him, Can you see anything?
The question asked by his mother, asked by boys throwing
rocks, asked by the man’s own tongue in the dark.
The man looked up and said,
I can see people, they look like trees walking.
Their eyes and mouths are olives, green and ready
to be picked, their fingers shake like leaves.
The trees are walking, their feet are breathing dust.
And then Jesus touched his eyes again.
Add your voice and try writing some midrash—either in poem or narrative prose. Find a mystery or a story where details are sparse or troublesome. I used the healing miracles but you could easily use any story where we could hear more from the voice of an apostle or Mary, say. Midrash is a speculative meditation on causality, relationship, and meaning. Do not be afraid of metaphor but keep the incidents in the text recognizable. I would love to hear about your midrash!
Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo’s poetry can be found in many religious and secular journals, most recently in Relief: A Christian Expression, and forthcoming in Rock & Sling. Her essay “Gathering Anyway” was a finalist for Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives contest in 2009. She teaches at Oregon Episcopal School, where she also serves as a chaplain.
LiturgicalCredo published her more edgy approach to the incarnation here.